Lawsuits also draw public attention to systemic problems that everyone should be involved in addressing—like in this case, the problem of a crisis in access to quality health care, especially for women of color like Vance, Rodriguez and Green. Women of color face staggering disparities in the quality of treatment they receive in hospitals. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, women of color are more likely to be treated at less well-funded, less well-staffed hospitals with fewer mechanisms for ensuring quality care to patients. This is why it is especially important that they and their families have access to the courts to hold negligent hospitals accountable and demand substantive changes to a broken system.
One question may not be answerable with a lawsuit: Could there be a level of indifference, conscious or unconscious toward women of color and their health? The shocking details of the deaths certainly do not allay such suspicions—a custodian mopping casually around a dying Rodriguez, a security guard watching Green lie in anguish, Vance being returned to the waiting room despite clear signs of a heart attack. Countless other anecdotes tell about women being barely examined, told they were “fine” and sent home only to suffer unnecessarily later. These stories could be outliers or just symptoms of a problem that affects everyone. But one cannot be blamed for wondering whether an unconscious devaluation of women’s lives plays a role in the poor care they receive.
Lawsuits may not be able to answer those types of questions, but they do garner the public attention necessary to get communities talking about how to improve access to quality health care. And despite questions lawsuits cannot answer, what happened to Green, Rodriguez and Vance reminds us of the important function of our civil justice system. It compensates families who lose loved ones in an untimely, unnecessary way, and it creates pressure on hospitals to take steps necessary to prevent such injuries from ever happening again.
Kia C. Franklin is a senior fellow in civil justice at the Drum Major Institute. She blogs at www.TortDeform.Com.